B-52 design: slide rules, balsa wood, glue, carving tools and silver paint

Holden Withington, Last Living B-52 Designer, Dies at 94


On a Friday in 1948, six aeronautical designers from the Boeing Company holed up in a hotel suite in Dayton, Ohio. They stayed put until Monday morning, except for the one who left to visit a hobby shop and returned with balsa wood, glue, carving tools and silver paint.

The group emerged with a neatly bound 33-page proposal and an impressive 14-inch scale model of an airplane on a stand. Col. Pete Warden, the Air Force chief of bomber development, studied the result and pronounced, “This is the B-52.”

One of those six was Holden Withington, and on Dec. 9, at age 94, he became the last of the B-52 designers to die. His daughter, Victoria Withington, said he died at his home on Mercer Island, Wash. He had Alzheimer’s disease.


A debate raged in the service and beyond over the merits of a jet engine versus those of a turbo prop, which would use less fuel but sacrifice speed. The RAND Corporation, the research group, favored the turbo prop.

But the turbo prop approach “just wasn’t coming together,” Mr. Withington told The Times of Shreveport, La., in 2002. “The program was at risk of being canceled,” he said.

A meeting was held at Wright Field in Dayton to address what Mr. Withington said was now viewed as a crisis. Colonel Warden decreed that the turbo prop idea should be dropped in favor of jet engines, then ordered the group back to their hotel room for their weekend of frenzied work. They used slide rules for calculations.

Comment: Image source Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. I have a collection of slide rules (which I used back in college.

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